Those of us who have read or watched science fiction know that one of the most common characteristics of sci-fi is travel through space. Star Wars, Star Trek, Dune, The Foundation Series, and the many of the most famous works of Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, and other classic authors occur in space. Among modern sci-fi, award-winning books like Redshirts and Ancillary Justice also take place in this environment.
Space is, of course, beautiful, and has its charms, but I believe that the genre’s focus on space does not make much sense. Realistically speaking, it is unlikely we are ever going to be able to jump across stars in a single lifetime, and science fiction is about the future, or the possibilities of the future. Therefore, I believe that stories that take place in space, but lack realism — often, but not always, grouped together as “Space Opera” — are merely works of fantasy that take place in space. Even then, these works too ought to be subject to believable in-world explanations of why things are the way they are.
“Science Fiction is something that could happen – but usually you wouldn’t want it to. Fantasy is something that couldn’t happen, though often you only wish that it could.” -Arthur C. Clarke
Space travel between multiple star systems is almost always contingent on the use hyperspace, a process that involves a hypothetical jump through an alternative dimension in order to “cut” through three-dimensional space. While scientists generally agree that there are many dimensions out there (up to 11), there is no consensus on whether or not these could be used for travel. Even operating under the assumption that they could, how it could be done within the economic and physical constraints humanity currently faces?
I am personally not convinced that humanity will leave this solar system for several millennia, if ever, and thus cannot envision a future, as described by science fiction, in which there are galactic empires and a humanity spread across many star systems. Nor am I convinced that interstellar travel is possible because of the conspicuous lack of alien activity in our solar system. Life seems relatively common, so there may be thousands of life-forms across the galaxy, meaning that even if a few species are ahead of us, at least one would have arrived on Earth by now and revealed itself (they can’t all just want to silently observe us, even if there is a reason to do so, because someone is bound to be curious or aggressive, and we can’t assume all aliens will have the same nature and rules to not do so…)
“Science fiction can be defined as that branch of literature which deals with the reaction of human beings to changes in science and technology.” -Issac Asimov
There is a category of the genre known as “Hard Science Fiction”— characterized by an emphasis on either scientific accuracy, technical detail, or both. While science fiction doesn’t need to tack so hard in this direction, it would be nice to see it situate more stories in the future using technologies and trends more likely than interstellar travel. It is more realistic, when writing about space, to write about travel within our solar system, as in The Martian, which tried very hard to be realistic and scientifically accurate.
It seems like the majority of scientific advances in the future will involve biology or nano-miniaturization and computing; I think science fiction authors and filmmakers should focus more on those possibilities. Among authors, the only prominent science fiction writer without a focus on space of whom I am aware is Neal Stephenson.
But the future will involve crazy types of computers or genetic modifications that authors need to creatively think about while writing. Most of the classical authors of the genre, such as Asimov, foresaw galactic empires, but normal humans without virtual realities, electronic implants or cell phones. Yet, today, we have all of these things, but have yet to even go back to walking on the moon, let alone Mars.
Perhaps humanity’s need to discover and invent will continue to remain earthbound for a while and our technological future will focus on manipulating the microscopic or quantum realms rather than outer space and “huge” things. If our readers know of any interesting earthbound science fiction, please leave links in the comments, on our Facebook, or tweet them to us @backroomwhisper
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